GDC 2017 Recap: The future of VR is not gaming
Next year, the Game Developers Conference (originally the Computer GameDevelopers Conference) will celebrate its 30th anniversary. And it’s been a good run. Each year technology pioneers meet and discuss the current trends that are shaping gaming industry and what they think will be the ideas that dominate for years to come. They are usually right too, with the show reflecting that by giving attendees a look at what is coming.
With VR, however, they may be a little bit off the mark.
Gaming developers want to be pioneers. They want to be pushing the envelope and finding ways to expand a genre that is frequently at risk of entropy due to oversaturation of clones. They want to be doing something new and exciting, even if it is still limited. And we need that.
If it wasn’t for the ridiculous brick-sized mobile phones of the 90s, we wouldn’t have smartphones today. People weren’t thrilled at the idea of replacing their media libraries yet again for Blu-ray, but it is the new standard. Technology always has growing pains, and the gap between current VR technology and where it needs to be to really take off isn’t quite there yet – not enough to encourage a mainstream audience to potentially pay $1,500 or more for a powerful enough computer to properly run VR, a costly headset, and the controllers that go with it. At least not just to play games, especially not when those games are still in their infancy and there are so many other tradiitional options for gamers.
There hasn’t been a killer VR game yet, and so far 2017 is showing that traditional AAA devs are just starting to hit that sweet spot for the current generation of consoles. It happens every new generation – it takes a few years until the developers are truly comfortable enough to push the hardware. Of the 10 top rated Xbox 360 games (according to Metacritic), only three of the games were released within two years of the system’s launch, and one was a collection of earlier games.
This year we’ve already seen critically acclaimed titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, Nier: Automata, Resident Evil 7, and Yakuza 0. Nintendo also just released its new Switch console and the heavily lauded The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and the lineup for the rest of the year for all systems is looking strong with Mass Effect: Andromeda, Red Dead Redemption 2, Prey, Suoer Mario Odyssey, and many others. The demand for VR is not that strong in part because there are many, many alternatives in the same wheelhouse that cost much, much less.
The pricing for VR will drop, and eventually the headsets will shrink in size and become more comfortable. That won’t do much for the early adopters, but it will help increase the potential audience. But with any new type of technology, there’s the “grandparent factor.”
For a new technology to really make an impact, it needs to be easy enough for non-tech people to embrace, and attractive enough for them to at least want to try it out. It needs to be easy enough that grandparents can accept. Sure, that is a vast over generalization and it might be a little patronizing to actual grandparents – some of which will cut you if you suggest they are luddites – but the point remains. People that aren’t early adopters by nature, people that don’t generally embrace technology, are never going to get into VR gaming. Not ever.
But that doesn’t mean VR can’t and won’t explode soon, and that the grandparent group won’t accept it. It just means that it may come from different industries.
At GDC this year, one of the most interesting trends in VR wasn’t specifically the VR gaming, but the other peripherals and software that use VR in other ways. Peripherals had a large presence at the show, and while many of them could be used for gaming, that’s not necessarily their best use.
One example is the CaptoGlove, a device that began as a Kickstarter project and is marketed for gaming, but has capabilities far beyond that. The prototype is a simple, lightweight glove that contains a small inertial sensor in a pouch on the top of hand. When viewed in VR, it shows the hands movement with remarkable accuracy. At the show, there were two demos – one which allowed you to shoot enemies in a first person shooter using your finger, and the other where you fly a helicopter without physically holding a stick.
The glove was developed by Paolo Trotto, who initially had the idea for the technology while thinking of ways to help his father recover from a stroke. The glove could be connected with medical equipment and a VR headset, and the patient could attempt to replicate a series of movements meant to increase dexterity. The results could then be sent to the patient’s doctor or physical therapist for a closer look at their progress. And that’s just one use.
The glove connects via Bluetooth to most devices, including mobile. While Google may have flubbed the launch of its AR glasses, the technology will return sooner or later – probably before VR catches on. Given how glued people are to their smartphones, finding a way to properly project information handsfree is too appealing to ignore. With a device like the CaptoGlove, you could wear AR glasses and control them with simple hand gestures. The glove could also be used as a virtual mouse. An option to include haptic feedback is also in development, which – among other things – could offer virtual keyboards. It could also be used to teach things that require finger movements – playing an instrument, for example.
Another exhibitor at GDC, Hyperverse, was demonstrating new technology that has a lot of potential. Hyperverse is working on a new type of virtual reality that is portable. Their aim is to create a virtual game for amusement parks, but it has applications that go beyond that.
The current version has users slip on a backpack filled with batteries, containing a device that wirelessly beams the movement to a nearby computer. It pairs with a thin, lightweight system of trackers that attach to the ceiling. The demonstration had a ceiling that was roughly 10’x10’ but could be expanded with ease. The user then is able to see their own movements – including individual finger movements – with precise detail.
While the technology is being developed for games, it shows another new direction for VR technology. It should come as no surprise that people are working on wireless VR, but being able to track that wireless VR using discreet sensor technology that can be place don the ceiling opens up many possibilities. Among other things, it means using costly tracking cameras would be unnecessary, and any space with an opening ceiling could be used for VR.
VR is also currently being used for teaching in industries where it is easier to develop VR programming than to train in a specific way. One group, Opaque Media Group, is helping to develop software for NASA that reinforces the slow and deliberate movements potential astronauts become familiar with in order to work in space.
It simulates the bulky and deliberate movements needed to use equipment and move around in a swimming pool, just as the astronauts train in real life. While actually suiting up and submerging someone is costly and requires several people, potential astronauts (and those looking to get a taste of the training) can recreate it at a fraction of the cost and effort in VR. Others like
Others like SimX are using the technology to train doctors on how to potentially diagnose conditions in patients. Medical students can throw on a VR headset and examine a virtual patient, learning the proper steps and procedures with no risk and little setup.
With the infusion of money into VR through industries beyond gaming, more and more people will look to the technology. We’ve already seen VR used for television broadcasts like the Olympics in Rio, but it was primitive and felt more like a gimmick than an alternative way to watch. Give it a few years, however, and imagine wearing comfortable, lightweight glasses to watch the Super Bowl from the sidelines – or maybe even on the field. A few years after when VR cameras are small and light enough, we may be watching the game from the point of view of the players themselves.
GDC also had numerous examples of facial mapping technology on display, although most of it was not consumer facing. With the technology improving, we’re probably not far from things like virtual shopping, where realistic-looking personal avatars that look like the user can try on clothes. You’ll be able to see what you would like in a new suit or dress, all without leaving your home. Once that happens, you’ll see some serious money injected into the industry from companies that sell products. And with organizations like Facebook already heavily invested, it’s only a matter of time until we see virtual chat rooms and more social features introduced. You’ll be able to meet up with your virtual friends’ avatars, who will actually look like them (or more realistically, an idealized version of them).
VR gaming isn’t going away, there’s just too much time and money invested in it at this point. It’s easy to make comparisons to other failed technologies that were led by the manufacturers rather than users – 3D TV being a prime example – but VR as a whole just has too much potential and even if it may not be the industry that leads the charge in the future, VR gaming is at the forefront.
GDC 2017 showed the future of VR, although it may not be the exact future that many there expect.